This election has, for most Canadians, been a non-event thus far. The majority of people who will tune in are going to do so after the debates, the first of which will happen Tuesday, April 12.
This week, the Liberals scored some victories by taking an opposite tack to the strongly negative beginning of Conservative campaign. The Conservatives attempted to make this a campaign about Michael Ignatieff’s family history, the fact that he spent many years as a successful journalist and professor in the United Kingdom and the United States. That didn’t work, so they began hammering on the “Liberal-led leftist coalition”.
The Coalition Theme is Bombing
The coalition verbiage hasn’t worked, mainly because there has been no coalition announced. Nor Mr. Layton, Mr. Ignatieff or Mr. Duceppe even mentioned the idea of coalition. In fact, a cursory search for #elxn41 and “coalition” on Twitter search, yields a very mixed stream of tweets, many of which are satirical or positive. The coalition theme seems to have bombed.
Ad Hominem Attacks on Mr. Ignatieff – Mixed Results
The ad hominem attacks on Mr. Igatieff seem to have had a little more staying power. The advantage here was that the Conservatives have been pushing this message for months and months, spending a lot of money on their “Just visiting” campaign in 2009/10 and more recently on their “He didn’t come back for you” campaign. Anecdotally, I get the feeling that this messaging had a negative impact on Canadians’ impression of Mr. Ignatieff – the result of a classic longterm audience cultivation theory approach to political marketing.
The thing is, that everything is up for grabs during a campaign, and the Liberals have done an excellent job of promoting a hopeful, optimistic and open campaign narrative in their ads. Mr. Ignatieff’s focus on his past as a war reporter in Afghanistan and his “A Canada we can be proud of” ads were both highly successful. It remains to be seen whether the boiling pot of a campaign can move attitudes and opinions that have been set through two years of careful audience message and image cultivation. This is one thing that I am watching for.
It is interesting to note that cultivation theory works. Nik Nanos, the most scientifically accurate pollster in Canada, has released numbers which suggest that Mr. Ignatieff’s leadership numbers are basically flat, and that Mr. Harpers are on a slight wane. Mr. Layton’s leadership numbers have declined slightly.
Release of the Platforms – A non-event, really
The Liberals decided release their Red Book by doing a social media-friendly online town hall meeting that Canadians could tune into and participate in by tweeting questions. This was undoubtedly successful, and served to stabilize and invigorate their base. Mr. Ignatieff’s tour to promote the platform this week was powerfully positive as well. He brought the message to my adoptive hometown, Hamilton, (I am originally from King City, Ontario) and had a spectacularly successful event at Liuna Station in Hamilton Centre.
Meanwhile, the Conservative platform was released online during a speech by he Prime Minister. The platform is long and detailed, with a definite focus on the importance of creating a very positive operating climate for business in Canada, while providing expanded income-splitting, which reinforces traditional living arrangements where one partner stays at home. The Conservative platform is written in a strange way – a mix of highly aspirational language about aiming for financial success, improved health care and higher international prestige both for individual Canadians as well as Canada as country. This is in stark contrast with the highly politicized language of the platform, which mentions the coalition no less than 42 times.
The Red Book was focused around the Liberal Family Pack – a set of policies meant to appeal to middle-class voters who comprise the traditional Liberal base. That seems to have worked, as the focus on youth, education, healthcare investment, and reinforcing the CPP provide a good foil to the Conservative focus on corporate tax cuts, income splitting, law and order, free trade agreements and fighter jets.
The NDP did not release their platform this week.
Why didn’t voter intention move more drastically?
You might ask, then, why voter intention hasn’t moved more. Again, according to Nik Nanos, there has been a slight narrowing of voter intention with the Conservatives at 39.5% support, slightly higher than their starting number of 37.6%; the Liberals surging forward to 31.6%, from their start at 26.2%. The thing is that both have gained at the expense of the NDP, whose support has dropped to 14.7%, from a start of 18.2%.
What this tells me is that Mr. Ignatieff’s powerful performance and friendly image are so far only consolidating the Liberal base and encouraging moderate NDP supporters to view the Liberals as potential left-of-centre champion. They have yet to penetrate into the Conservative base, which has held solidly at above their baseline of 37% support. Really, what Mr. Ignatieff and the Liberals have done up to now is guarantee that we might see a similar result to the current configuration of Parliament, while at the beginning of the election, it looked as they were staring down a precipice.
The Liberal challenge is to penetrate the Conservative fortress of 37% support to make this election start to seem winnable, rather than “come-from-behind” or “just-put-in-an-honourable-showing”.
The Transformation of the NDP … into the Bloc Québécois
What this tells me is that the public is more and more perceiving this election as a two-horse race. This is in keeping with Duverger’s Law, which asserts “that a plurality rule election system tends to favor a two-party system.” I think what we are seeing is the NDP reduced to a special-interest party (serving the few unions that still only endorse the NDP, some agricultural cooperatives, and a motley crew of academic radicals and urban hipsters) with clots of support in British Columbia and Atlantic Canada, while it withers in Ontario and the prairies. In fact, in Ontario, apart than a couple of strongholds like: (i) Hamilton, where the NDP garners a large percentage of votes and many citizens still feel a traditional affiliation to the party; and (ii) parts of Northern Ontario where there is a syndicalist NDP tradition; the rest of Ontario really is a barren wasteland for the NDP.
In some ways, the NDP is starting to look a lot like the Bloc Québécois, as a highly-localised, special-interest party (which is supported by Québec unions, French-language supporters and Québec sovereigntists). I think the biggest irony here is that the only real growth area for the NDP nationally is in French Canada, where they will fight with the BQ to split the left-of-centre and syndicalist vote. Either way, I think we are seeing the beginning of the end for the NDP as a true national political alternative.
Elizabeth May’s Exclusion – An old, boring song.
While I like Elizabeth May personally, I don’t think she has been an effective force in propelling the Green party into the mainstream. Media coverage of the GPC’s campaign has been minimal, and the outrage at her exclusion has been muted. Since this is the second time around this argument for these leaders, and most of them are bringing out the same talking points around it as last time (the Consortium needs reform, we should move to an MMP system, etc.), it all feels like a re-hash. No progress in the narrative in politics = boring. Media and public boredom with your message = political death. Plus, we just haven’t seen much growth for the GPC, other than among “civil liberties” types, who are mostly abandoning the NDP. I suspect that after this election, we will hear many calls to fold the GPC into what has become an environmentally-friendly Liberal Party of Canada. There is an ideological match there, since the GPC seems to have largely picked up a lot of the slack of the old Progressive Conservative Party.
Conservatives Excluding Youth From Rally Because of Facebook Profile – Off-Code
A brief note on the Conservative exclusion of a young woman from one of their rallies because of her Liberal-friendly Facebook profile. While this is decidedly off-code for the “social media election” which tends toward equality of voice and inclusion; and while the Liberals capitalized on it quite effectively with a timely advert; the entire episode read more like a side-show than a fatal flaw, although it did reinforce the impression that the Prime Minister is running a closed, safe, front-runner’s campaign. This permitted Mr. Ignatieff to make much of the fact that everyone, from every partisan affiliation is welcome at Liberal events. A small victory for Mr. Ignatieff, perhaps mostly a moral one.
The Debates: A Changed Game in the Social Media Election?
It will be fascinating to see how the debates change the landscape, and what approach the Leaders will take in the debates. As I said in a previous blog post, in this social media election, the public will be expecting authenticity, candour and sincerity from the Leaders, not talking points, canned messaging and ad hominem attacks.
Social media makes the whole election feel like it is happening in the living rooms of the nation – it is making the whole spectacle feel very real and very personal to individual Canadians. The Leaders had best take note of this and debate accordingly!
Final Verdict: Week 2 Goes to Mr. Ignatieff and the Liberals
While I am giving week 2 to a newly confident Mr. Ignatieff and his boyant Liberal team, I have to note that the Conservative campaign has been steady and “above the noise.” They are running a competent front-runner’s campaign.
The Liberals need to start eating into the core Conservative base of 37% support, if they hope to turn their successes into a government on May 2.